Tuesday night I tweeted my first creative writing professor in college told me I’d never get published. Over thirty novels later I’m still waiting for his first…
I tell this story a lot when I teach, or when I’m on panels. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve forgotten my professor’s name; when required I’ve called him Dr. Dixon, but I know that wasn’t his name. I did send him a copy of my first book, signed When you were my professor you told me I’d never get published. Looking forward to your first. Snarky and petty, yes, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of that. I don’t know if he remembered me (probably not) or if he even read the book (probably not), but it’s very important to remember that I was seventeen years old when Dr. Enema Nozzle said this to me. His exact words were, If you’re dream is to become an author, I’m afraid you’re going to have to find another dream because you’re never going to be published. What kind of DICK says that to a student? I mean, seriously. I had always done well with writing, all through school; classmates read my stories and loved them, as a sixteen year old taking Freshman Comp in college, on the first day we had to write one of those stupid essays about the three things you’d take with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island, and why. That essay got me moved up from Basic Comp to Honors English, and here was a creative writing professor telling me that not only could I not write, but I would never be a writer. My writing was so bad there was nothing he could teach me to improve my craft; any time spent with me working on my writing was clearly a waste of his time.
He also told me not to bother turning in another story that semester;
What a fucking asshole.
I didn’t stop writing; I was working on a novel at the time, but it did derail me for a long time. You see, like a fool I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? He was my teacher, an authority figure who, with his Ph.D, was supposed to know what he was talking about. I still wanted to be a writer, I still wanted to write–but from that moment on, I no longer believed that I could do it; that I could get published, or that my writing would ever be anything more than a hobby. I eventually dropped out of college, and took several years off. When I returned to school, I took another creative writing class, and this time the teacher was not only encouraging, he insisted that I send some of the stories I wrote for his class (I took it for two consecutive semesters) out to magazines for publication. I did try, but the stories were rejected. But I was starting to believe again. I tried again in the late 1980’s–always rejected, but I got good feedback from the editors. Those editors also encouraged me to keep writing and submitting, but I foolishly and naively believed they were just being nice…and I gave up trying again shortly thereafter.
Obviously, I eventually became a published author, but sometimes I wonder about the long-lasting effects on my psyche that professor caused. I often doubt my work and my abilities; whenever I get rejected it triggers a downward spiral of depression, and it’s part of the reason why I have always been so hesitant to try to get an agent. I am not secure enough, or emotionally healthy enough, or confident enough, to handle that kind of rejection. I even wonder, now, as I think about revising that manuscript yet again, if I really need to revise it again or if it’s just another way to delay, put off, sending it out to agents again.
I read another story in Sarah Weinman’s brilliant anthology Tortured Daughters, Twisted Wives, “A Nice Place to Stay” by Nedra Tyre.
All my life I’ve wanted a nice play to stay. I don’t mean anything grand. just a small room with the walls freshly painted and a few neat pieces of furniture and a window to catch the sun so that two or three pot plants could grow. That’s what I’ve always dreamed of. I didn’t yearn for love or money or nice clothes, though I was a pretty enough girl and pretty clothes would have made me prettier–not that I mean to brag.
Things fell on my shoulders when I was fifteen. That was when Mama took sick, and keeping house and looking after Papa and my two older brothers–and of course nursing Mama–became my responsibility. Not long after that Papa lost the farm and we moved to town. I don’t like to think of the house we lived in near the C & R railroad tracks, though I guess we were lucky to have a roof over our heads–it was the worst days of the Depression and a lot of people didn’t even have a roof, even one that leaked, plink, plonk; in a heavy rain there weren’t enough pots and pans and vegetable bowls to set around to catch all the water.
Sarah Weinman recommended Nedra Tyre to me several years ago; I found a copy of her Death of an Intruder on ebay and really enjoyed it. This short story is also exceptional; the main character is very plainspoken, and has a very matter-of-fact voice that makes the true horror of her actual story even more awful. While it is a crime story, it’s also about how awful life for women could be if they had no education or family and came from a poor background; this poor woman becomes basically homeless after her parents die, since her sisters-in-law won’t allow her to come live with them and the house is gone; she gradually takes jobs as caretakers for seriously ill people, because it will give her a place to live. Her matter-of-fact stories about what it’s like to be poor, homeless and hungry; how this drives her to dumpster dive for food or steal from grocery stores–always cherries or tomatoes that are overriped and no one would buy; wilted leaves off heads of lettuce and cabbage–is incredibly powerful. When a woman she is hired to care for dies after giving her a valuable heirloom, she is accused of theft and then is involved in the accidental death of a cop. She is convicted and send to jail…and even more awful, the jail is a nice play to stay. But then her conviction is overturned, and what is she going to do now?
What a great, chilling story–and what an incredible achievement in character! I think it’s terrible that Nedra Tyre is out of print, and her books are so rare and hard to find. She also published a lot of short stories;it would be great if someone would collect them all into an anthology.
And now, back to the spice mines.